The idea of a heavily armed police force with few (if any) power limitations is a truly terrifying scenario, and one that we’re already in. The ACLU’s 2014 report on police militarization in America titled “War Comes Home” lays out some truly startling facts regarding the police and their use of military tactics and equipment. The vast majority of the uptick in police militarization is due to the Department of Defense’s 1033 program whereby existing military hardware is given to police departments free of charge so long as the recipient pays for transportation and maintenance. The program, which was started in 1989 on a temporary basis, was made permanent in 1996. Apart from maintenance and transportation fees, the only other requirement is that the police department which received the hardware use it within one year.
The sheer volume of military hardware given to these police departments is truly astounding. According to the report, Arizona has acquired 32 bomb suits, 704 sets of night-vision goggles, 1,034 guns, 42 forced entry tools, 830 surveillance equipment units, 13,409 sets of personal protective equipment, 120 utility trucks, 64 armored vehicles, four GPS devices, 17 helicopters, and 21,211 other types of military equipment through the 1033 program. When the police are quite literally amassing weaponry and equipment used by the Armed Forces and employing some of their tactics, it is hard to think of a term more apt than the militarization of the police for this movement of moral boundaries.
The report’s title, “War Comes Home,” while on the surface is relatively self-explanatory, actually goes quite a bit deeper. It goes beyond simply the military hardware, referring also to the mentality of the police. According the report, the rhetoric of police training in some places even goes as far to refer to officers as “warrior cops,” with one particular trainer saying, “We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector.”
Between the “warrior cop” mindset in training and the 1033 requirement stating that the hardware must be used within a year of acquisition, the police are incentivized to take increasingly militaristic roles. While the “warrior cop” notion is grim, perhaps more frightening is the “use within one year” requirement. Looking at the staggeringly long list of military equipment in Arizona, it becomes obvious what the requirement leads to — the nature of the equipment, how it becomes a “new toy” of sorts, leads to often disproportionate displays of force and power just to fulfil the requirement and test the equipment. In essence, the requirement invites police officers to test their deadly new contraptions and weapons on the public they’ve sworn to protect. Not only that, but the police have work-arounds such as “no knock” warrants that allow them to, in essence, act as an elite military unit, and effectively moving the moral boundaries further and further from where they began.
It is important to note that this report came out shortly before the tragic events surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri that sparked the now infamous protests in the city. The report’s findings seem to indicate that the deadly combination of militaristic “warrior cop” style training and the availability of military grade hardware had a great deal to do with the police’s response to Michael Brown. The mindset of the police whereby they view the very places they’re sworn to protect as battlegrounds indicates an undeniably dangerous culture of power abuse within the police; and, when coupled with the supply of weapons and hardware that must be used, it yields truly horrific results. The military’s equipment being handed over, coupled with the already racially biased foundation, is a recipe for tragedy, as we know doubt have seen time and time again.
Police forces nationwide are taking advantage of the 1033 program and procuring military grade hardware with every intention of using it to bolster their strength. Not every police force utilizing the program tends to think of their officers as warriors or their city a battlefield, but the addition of these weapons sure doesn’t help public trust in the police. The temptation is too great with these weapons and the training is getting far too militaristic — it’s almost inevitable that these are the perfect circumstances for the police to abuse their power. In the absence of a war abroad, domestic police forces have armed themselves with military hardware and became an ersatz army.
The moving of the moral boundaries does not begin and end with the 1033 program. Beyond the changes in police training as of late and the procurement of military hardware, the United States Government has continued to shift the moral boundaries toward whatever suits their needs at the time. Melanie Richter-Montpetit’s article in the 2015 Security Dialogue journal titled, “Beyond the erotics of Orientalism: Lawfare, torture and the racial–sexual grammars of legitimate suffering,” goes into great detail about the US and its changing views on torture. Richter-Montpetit writes, “Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have gone to great pains not to simply declare a state of exception and suspend the law. Rather, they have sought to legalize a wide range of lethal and non-lethal security practices, including capture, rendition, indefinite detention, ‘enhanced’ interrogation and targeted killings, some of which remain classified.” The move to legalize and normalize a great deal of previously unacceptable tactics is systematic, and not coincidental by any stretch.